TUTORIAL – How to Structure Argumentative Essays
In my classes, the two most common forms of term papers are the position paper (or essay) and the review paper (or essay).
In a position paper, you discuss the pros and cons of a given issue (that is, the major arguments or and against it), and then argue for a particular position. Crucial in a position paper is the concluding part, in which you explain why on balance your position is the best—why it has on balance more pros than cons—more benefits than costs, to use terms from economics. You do this in great part by arguing against the major objections to your view, or by showing how it can be modified in such a way that it gets around the major problems.
In a review paper, you are not out to take a final position on the issue. Instead, your goal is to clarify the issue in the readers mind by carefully, neutrally, and comprehensively exploring the major arguments on both sides, offering rebuttals, clarifications, and amplifying material to them. (The amplifying material might take the form of giving additional factual evidence, for example.)
In both sorts of essay, argumentation is essential for the reader to follow your discussion. It is important that you outline your essay before writing it, and make sure your outline has a coherent structure. You should avoid ping-ponging the reader, which means haphazardly presenting a point, rebutting it, replying to the rebuttal, then introducing another point and doing the same thing again.
For a position paper, a good structure might involve these sections:
• Major arguments for the other view(s).
• Your replies to those arguments, and arguments against those view/views.
• Major arguments for your view.
• Replies others might make and the arguments against your view.
• Your counters to those points.
For a review paper, a good structure might involve these sections:
• Major arguments for one position.
• Replies to those arguments, along with arguments against it.
• Major arguments for the other position.
• Replies to those arguments, and arguments against it. (If there are more than two major positions on the issue, add a section on arguments for it and one on replies to those arguments plus arguments against it).
Now, with any expository essay (either position or review paper), it is also important that you write a clear introduction. The introduction for a position paper will usually consist of an introductory paragraph on what the issue is and why it is important. The second paragraph will lay out the major views or positions on the issue, and announce clearly to the reader which position you will be arguing for is the best.
The introduction to a review paper will again start with a beginning paragraph about what the issue is, and why it is important. But in the second paragraph, while you will lay out the major positions, you will make it clear to the reader that you will not be advocating any of them, but only comparing and contrasting them with an eye to achieve a deeper understanding of them.
In some cases, the introduction may also contain some key definitions and clarification of the central concepts (if they are not ordinary and obvious).
Let’s consider an example. Suppose you are going to write a review essay on whether the government should fund embryonic stem cell research. In the first paragraph, you should tell the reader what the issue is and why it is important. For example, you might try this:
“Among various promising lines of medical research is research into embryonic stem cells. A number of scientists have said that this research offers the chance of finding cures for many diseases that have proven so far to be intractable. But in our multicultural society, many people view embryonic stem cells as in some sense persons, and object strongly to such research, In this paper, while I will not be taking a position on this issue, I will clarify the major positions others take.”
In this first paragraph, you have gotten the reader’s attention, let him/her know what the controversy is, and explained your aim in writing the paper. In the next paragraph, you want to sketch out briefly (but only briefly, as you will be exploring them in detail later) the major positions. In this case, you might delineate three positions:
“There are several quite different views people hold on this issue. First, some believe that since there is no scientific reason to hold that embryonic stem cells are anything but simply cells, we should let the government fund research using such cells like we fund all kinds of other medical research. A second view says that the whole concept of a person is metaphysical rather than “scientific,” so people of religious faith who feel that embryonic stem cells are persons should work politically to ban all such research across the board. A third view holds that since we cannot prove one way or the other our views on the metaphysical status of persons, people should be free to privately fund and do research into such research if they wish, but nobody should be forced to fund it against his will. So (under this third view) tax dollars should not be used to fund embryonic stem cell research.”
In the final paragraph of the introductory section, you would want to make major relevant definitions and distinctions to focus the discussion.
“We need to be specific about what kind of research this paper is about. Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew and grow in number by division, and are capable of becoming specialized to a tissue or organ. There are three basic sorts of stem cells: embryonic; non-embryonic (often called “adult” or “somatic”); and induced pluripotent stem cells. Adult stem cells can be found in adults. Induced pluripotent stem cells are genetically reprogrammed adult stem cells. Neither adult nor induced pluripotent cells are ethically controversial. But embryonic stem cells are ones that were created by in vitro fertilization (for couples trying to have children) but not used, and donated for research. [You would cite a source for these definitions, such as the NIH website, which I used.] Here is the rub: according to some religions, when a human egg is fertilized by a sperm cell, the resultant embryo constitutes a separate person.”
All essays, of course, should respect the golden rules of argumentation.